Arts & Culture

Scarlett Johansson Gets Under The Skin

skin3 Velcro books. You probably have a few: those quiet, quirky novels that you relentlessly recommend. They’re not blockbusters; you most likely stumbled across them by chance. And although you find it difficult to describe precisely why you find them so compelling, you just want other people to have a go. To hear what they think.

Michel Faber’s novel Under The Skin has long been one of mine. Although it was shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread Award, it didn’t seem to make much of a blip on the popular radar, possibly because of its genre-bending nature. Ostensibly sci-fi, the novel follows the story of an alien called Isserley, who prowls northern Scotland harvesting the flesh of hitchhikers for her extraterrestrial employers, but the prose is as tautly opaque as the finest literary text. Part crime thriller, part psychological drama, it riffs on themes of corporate ethics, environmental destruction, factory farming, identity and class. See? It sounds rubbish. It’s not.

So when I found out that it was being made into a film directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Guinness ads) and starring Scarlett Johansson, I was worried that my odd little gem was going to become a big, reductive blockbuster. I was reassured when its premiere at the Venice Film Festival sharply divided critics, however, and it turns out to have all the strange and subtle anyone could want. Perhaps too much.


There are many memorably good things about this film. Johansson, renamed Laura as the alien, is a marvel. Every movie Johansson stars in features obsessive, salacious camera shots, and Under The Skin takes this fascination with her face and flesh to the extreme, both revelling in and satirising the objectification. Laura’s discomfort in her human body, and her slow journey towards finding acceptance and even pleasure in the ordinary stuff of human life, is mesmerising. Glazer is not afraid to let a single scene of Johansson driving, or looking in a mirror, or walking, play out for several minutes, until we too become defamiliarised from those familiar shapes and textures of fat and bone and skin. It’s deeply eerie, slightly disgusting, and utterly beautiful.

This is enhanced by one of the best soundscapes I’ve ever heard in a film. The minute crackles, pops, crunches and scuffs of a human moving through their environment are magnified so that we feel like our senses have been flayed, raw to the air. Much of the horror of the scenes where we see Laura’s victims disappear into a sea of black goo, only to have their insides sucked into a conveyor belt of gore and their skin deflate into a twist of parachute silk, is aural. Every slow, terrified eye blink and glacial finger movement has the opaque intensity you get from ducking your head under the bath.


The extraordinary ordinariness of Glasgow and its residents – many of whom were picked up by Johansson, cruising in her van, without realising they were part of a film – is deeply moving. From a cocky young clubber to a young man with a bone deformity making his way to Tesco’s in the dark, we see the full humour, heroism and vulnerability of people who could not be further from Hollywood. And later in the story, as Laura hides out with a reclusive man whose undemanding tenderness starts to crack her chill, her exploration of the surrounding wilderness – majestic snow-frosted mountains, forests, lochs – provides an exhilarating contrast.

As a mood piece, it’s an utter triumph. Aesthetically, the horror and the beauty are stunningly intertwined. And yet, and yet. You don’t have to be a soulless popcorn-munching pleb to long for the tiniest bit of structure or dynamism. As viewers, we are willing to wait a long time for the anticipated moment of reversal or development, because we’re so immersed. When it never comes, we are left with a slightly greasy taste in our mouth. Johansson gropes towards change and discovery but never quite gets there – meaning that when she literally climbs out of her burning skin in the putative climax, it doesn’t have the moment of impact the film so badly needs. Like her ash, we just kind of drift.

Like the book, it’s hard to say what the film is about, or even what really happens. The opening images – a series of circular surfaces, reflections and halos of light moving into and out of each other, evoking, in turn, hospital scanners and eyeballs – perfectly set the atmospheric scene. This is a film that lives in the boundaries between things, the silence beneath dialogue, the spaces where one body ends and another begins.

It’s a gorgeous ride to nowhere. Love it or hate it, it’ll velcro itself to your brain.

This review originally appeared on PHOENIX Magazine

Does Jude Law Do Henry V Justice?

HENRY V by Shakespeare, Image credit: Johan Persson

Henry V, Act 4, Scene 7. The King of England, engaged in the midst of a bloody battle with France, strides onto the stage with his nobles in tow, having just discovered that, against all codes of military conduct, the French troops have murdered the group of English boys left to guard the baggage. Henry begins:

I was not angry since I came to France Until this instant.

In Jude Law’s mouth, it’s not quite the truth. Undoubtedly, Michael Grandage’s much-anticipated production of Henry V confirms that Law has the acting clout to match his looks. He offers a charismatic and charming portrait of a heroic warrior king, maturing to an outstanding climax towards the end of the show. But the smooth pitch of righteous anger that he maintains throughout the production made me long to see a little more of the conflicted young man underneath.

To be fair, Henry has a lot of reasons to be angry. The king begins by being offered a haughty insult from a messenger of the Dauphin of France; next uncovers a betrayal by three of his closest nobles, conspiring with the French against his life; and then faces a dangerous campaign on foreign soil against ludicrous odds.

And certainly, Law does angry well. You believe that he could rally a divided nation of reluctant soldiers into devoted followers. You believe that, boyishly handsome yet supremely comfortable in his lean, louche frame, he could win the hearts of a weary public. It’s just a shame that he can’t find a few more moments of doubt amongst the daring, a few more moments where we see the sceptical mind of the commoners’ champion peeping out from under the crown.

The tensions that make Henry intriguing – the conscience of a man already well aware of the cost of royal escapades to ordinary English men and women, the insecurity of a youth only recently and reluctantly thrust on the throne – are all too often drowned in Law’s boys’-own gusto. Even in the opening scene, where Henry debates his right to launch a potentially cataclysmic war, we get the sense that he is already firmly plugged into his mission, and that nothing so trivial as doubt will get in his way. There is no real sense of internal struggle or decision-making – although Law repeatedly brings his hand up to his mouth, as aping a thinker’s pose will indicate his invisible brain whirr.

It’s a pity because, when Law shows us the human side of Henry in the final wooing scene, he’s brilliant. I’ve rarely seen a better take on the hilariously excruciating exchange as the tongue-tied king attempts to extract a promise of love out of Princess Katherine (a delightful Jessie Buckley).

HENRY V by Shakespeare,

Imsge credit: Johan Persson

There are other notable successes too. Ron Cook’s puffed-up old blusterer Pistol and Matt Ryan’s indignantly earnest Fluellen tease out every last note of comedy in the soldiers’ scenes; a welcome relief and poignant foil to the rest of the play’s patriotic bombast and death. Christopher Oram’s set, a weathered, Globe-esque wooden O, is elegant, simple and flexible, and his costumes strike just the right balance, nodding to the period without becoming distractingly ornate.

There are, however, problems with the verse-speaking from the rest of the cast. The energetic Ashley Zhangazha, as the Chorus, is typical – he has a fine relish for the music of the words but fails to make their logical ley-lines clear. When battle commences, we all too often get groups of men barrelling onto the stage, shouting stuff at each other. Their voices carry perfectly, but they simply don’t hit the emphases that make sense of the speech. It is laziness like this which can make audiences unfairly feel that they just don’t understand Shakespeare. But that’s the actors’ job.

Michael Grandage has chosen a clever swansong to end his directorial season at the Noel Coward theatre. This is arguably Shakespeare’s most accessible and humorous history, helmed by a hot A-lister with previous theatre form. It will no doubt be welcomed by critics and audiences alike. But I can’t help but feel there were some subtler, sadder gems to mine in this taut, glittering pageant of a show.


London's Top 10 Cultural Cafés

People watching is one of the greatest pleasures a big city affords. It’s especially good when practiced from a warm corner with a flat white and a home-made cupcake. It’s even better in a location that guarantees an eclectic crowd of trendsters, students, tourists, quirky arty types, and regular joes. And it’s best of all when, once you’re down to dregs and crumbs, you can rise from your armchair and catch an outstanding play or exhibition to round off your day.

From national museums to indie cinemas, London’s cultural institutions provide some of the best watering holes for socialising, slobbing and inspiration-seeking in the world. And with every Brit worth their salt boycotting Starbucks for its creative approach to tax, now is the time to support a classier breed of café. Here are ten of our favourite cosy hangouts in the capital, perfect for winter afternoons.

1. Wellcome Collection

Located just inside the foyer, the Wellcome Collection’s café may be furnished in an uninviting Duplo/IKEA hybrid style, but it is unfailingly buzzy and buoyant. Exhibitions are free, so after exploring the extraordinary current show on the iconography of death, you’ll have plenty of spare change to indulge in caterer Peyton and Byrne’s old school English treats - the gourmet black forest fairy cakes are a must. It’s also adjacent to the one of the best-curated cultural bookshops in London, so pick up the likes of David Eagleman’s Incognito to feed your brain as well as your belly.

2. Hackney Picturehouse

Cinema cafés tend to be lurid monstrosities, where the height of sophistication involves ordering a stale instant coffee to go with your supersized Ben and Jerry’s sundae. But Hackney Picturehouse’s scrubbed-wooden shared tables and retro booths make it as popular for relaxing as for watching its selection of popular and art-house films. With the Everyman’s brand of louche luxury bringing home-made apple-crumble muffins and chai lattes to the scrappy heart of east London, you’d be a fool not to head to their £6 Mondays. Just remember to bring your very best facial hair.

3. National Gallery Café

Yes, it’s full of elderly art-lovers and twenty-somethings taking their mums out for lunch, but the National Gallery’s high-ceilinged, big-windowed, wood-paneled room is a calm, elegant Henry James oasis in the heart of London’s tourist trail. The hard wooden chairs and benches encourage good posture rather than lazy lingering, but a bracing cup of oolong and a sharp apricot pastry are just the ticket for putting the spring back in your step. Oh, and one of the world’s best free collections of West European painting lies a few paces down the corridor. There is that.

4.  Almeida Theatre

Under artistic director Michael Attenborough, Islington’s Almeida theatre has become a reliable hit-factory; The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, Nick Dear's new play about the life of poet Edward Thomas, is already garnering glowing reviews. At night, the theatre’s very small café/bar resembles a game of sardines, but in the daytime it is a light-filled, peaceful haven in which to pick at delicious fresh food and stare wistfully out of the Upper Street-side window. The kind of place where prosecco feels mandatory past 3pm.

5. Blueprint Café

With its magnificent views and clean, neutral decor, the Blueprint Café, on the first floor of the Southbank’s Design Museum, is deeply tranquil. Food is on the expensive side, but there’s no reason not to string out an espresso and a panna cotta while peering down at riverside passers-by through the signature blue binoculars. Use the free Wifi to tweet a message with the #digitalcrystal hashtag, then head into Swarovski’s Digital Crystal exhibition to watch it appear on the 1000 LEDs hidden in the crystals of Ron Arad's Lolita chandelier.

6.  Benugo Lounge @ BFI

Rumour has it that the BFI’s shabby-chic Benugo lounge is the top online-dating meet-up joint in town, but don’t be put off by sweaty-palmed trysts. The dimly lit open-plan room, with its mismatched velvet armchairs and squishy leather sofas, works for noisy groups of mates and solo laptop bunnies alike, and once you’re finished with the loose-leaf tea you can move seamlessly onto cocktails and sweet potato fries. The crowd tends towards self-conscious be-scarfed media types, but December’s Doris Day season will help you greet the most pretentious posers with a beaming grin.

7. The Cut

If you’re feeling seasonally sluggish, you can practically snort the energy from the air at The Cut, the Young Vic Theatre’s restaurant and bar. Host a go-getting breakfast meeting over poached eggs and Virgin Marys, but bring your cashmere as the warehouse-style space can get cold. Very pretty people abound, attracted by the equally young, experimental and international theatre companies that showcase their work on the stage. Lunch on the divine banana split, then catch a matinee of Going Dark, their multi-sensory winter show, and you’ll explode back onto the streets with the scales dropped from your jaded eyes.

8. Gallery Mess @ The Saatchi Gallery

Seated in splendour amidst vaulted ceilings, exposed brickwork and edgy exhibits, every visitor to the Gallery Mess Café looks like a work of art themselves. In a sea of overpriced and underpowered Chelsea joints, this achingly stylish space provides welcome respite from the madness of the King’s Road, and Saatchi’s famous ability to nail the artistic zeitgeist makes a stroll through the gallery’s free exhibitions a must. Knock back a bespoke fresh fruit smoothie, explore the current display of new Russian work, and you’ll leave feeling truly refreshed.

9. Royal Court Theatre Café Bar

The Royal Court’s basement café/bar may be too dark to comfortably read, but you’d have to be blind to miss the theatre celebrities lurking in its moody corners. Find directors, playwrights, actors and even the odd sir or dame sitting at the wooden tables, squinting at their reviews in the Telegraph, sipping excellent fairtrade coffee and forking up slices of quiche. Some of the world’s best new theatre writing gets premiered at the Royal Court, so pick up a playtext or two from the shop before you settle. Mobile signal can be patchy, providing an excuse to sit back, relax and - God forbid - talk.

10. The V&A

Famously positioned in Saatchi & Saatchi’s late-80s ad campaign as “an ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached”, the V&A has a long history of giving good café. Although the tables and chairs are standard plastic-utilitarian museum fare, the original nineteenth-century refreshment rooms they sit in - which were built to house the first museum restaurant in the world and intended to showcase the best of modern design, craftsmanship and manufacturing - are simply spectacular. It’s the ideal setting to bring your Moleskine and make some sketches over a slice of Victoria sponge.

 This article originally appeared on London Calling.

Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

What more can there possibly be to say about Shakespeare?

This was the ignoble thought I carried into the British Museum’s much-hyped autumn blockbuster, Shakespeare: staging the world. Frankly, Shakespeare exegesis suffers from the same paradox as the diet industry. Every commentator ends up saying the same thing, and what they say contradicts what they are currently asking their audience to do: stop studying the theory and take action. Go get on your cross trainer. Go watch the plays. Go live.

Moreover, thanks to this year’s national Jubilympic chest-beating, we’re in serious danger of Shakespeare saturation. The bard is the punchline to every British identity crisis; we may be repressed, recessed and responsible for The Only Way Is Essex, but hey, look, we also produced this.

Staging the world forms the tail end of the Cultural Olympiad’s World Shakespeare Festival, which has spawned a bumper crop of great productions (current stand-outs include The Globe’s Twelfth Night, the National’s Timon of Athens and the Almeida’s King Lear) alongside an overspilling codpiece of related Elizabethan delights, from Branagh’s burst of Tempest at the Opening Ceremony to the sonnets being set to music for the first time.

All of which sets the British Museum a big challenge. How to persuade pomp-weary Londoners that this exhibition will truly enhance their drizzly back-to-school lives? Even the title sounds like the product of a Twenty Twelve brainstorm. “OK folks, let’s take a room in Bloomsbury and oh, I dunno, put the whole planet in it. That’ll be totes amaze.” But for your own sake, don’t be put off. Original, clearly articulated and deeply moving, with Staging the World, they’ve saved the best til last.

Unsurprisingly, this is an exhibition full of words, with specially recorded RSC actor-projections and pithy quotes plastered on the walls.  The space hisses with overlapping voices; the sound of an incoming theatre audience piped through the entryway is a nice touch. But it’s the thinginess of this show that makes it sing. As you encounter the chunk of legend-drenched Hernes oak, the ear scoop excavated from the site of the original Globe, and the spade and watering pot enabling citizens to bring a little patch of Arden into their urban back yard, you quickly discover that these hardy scraps of territory and identity evoke our pre-digital past in a way that timelines and Red Dwarf talking heads cannot.It is such stuff as dreams are made on; phenomenal poetry, a drama of gear.

It is a great tragedy that Shakespeare has become associated with the middle classes, via public school thespians and white-haired audiences. Three of the first exhibits are a 1600s dagger and rapier hauled out of the Thames, the skull of a bear used for baiting outside the playhouse, and a 1603 manuscript showing royal orders to prevent the spread of the plague. Shakespeare’s London was visceral and dangerous, and playhouses were immersed in poverty, cruelty and crime. Curator Dora Thornton has been careful to highlight the political implications of playwriting, too. ‘Kingship, rebellion and witchcraft’, a room dedicated to James I, outlines the “theatrical torture” which drew crowds to a very different sort of stage; in the middle of the room, a small silver reliquary holds the shrivelled right eye of Gunpowder Plotter Edward Oldcorne. Gloucester’s gouging and Shylock’s pound of flesh were no mere metaphors, and our coalition grumbles are cosy compared to stakes as high as this. Browsing the relics of horror and fear, I began to suspect that Shakespeare is no longer the poet of London. His world has much more to say to the Sudan or Pakistan.

Of course, the point of recreating Shakespeare’s world is to hold a mirror up to our own. Moving through the nine sections that make up the exhibition, from Arden to the classical past, Venice to exotic New Worlds, you realise that his was a time of exploding global connectivity akin to our own social media-enabled ‘revolution’. An extraordinary 1596 portrait shows diplomat Henry Unton presiding over scenes from his travels like the star of a giant Pinterest board; Sir Michael Balfour’s friendship album, a little journal of sketches and comments from his Venetian travels, is a beta Facebook. Maps, far from being geographically functional, were controversial political tools, a truth to which Apple and Google certainly still adhere. A golden ‘astrological compendium’ from 1593 combining compass, perpetual calendar, nocturnal, lunar calendar and list of altitudes is the ultimate backpacker’s app. However, the Elizabethan response to these new horizons was not a drive to comfortable homogenisation but a fetishism of the strange. Exotic fabrics, relics and customs became the ultimate status symbols. Even the most jaded Attenborough fan has to draw breath when confronted with the six-foot narwhal tusk hanging on the wall.

But if there is one theme that unites these 190 paintings, maps, books, coins, suits of armour, medals, tapestries, textiles and, well, oddities, it is an assertion of the complex power that physical objects wielded in Shakespeare’s day. A grubby beanie is revealed to be a ‘statute’ cap, which was declared mandatory wear in 1571 to boost a struggling wool industry. The Stratford Chalice, a gorgeous silver communion cup, turns out to be an instrument of social control that forced rich and poor parishioners alike to swallow politically-driven Protestantism. The Glenorchy charmstone, an equally gleaming crystal and silver treasure, is actually a crusading aristocrat’s treasure drenched in centuries’ worth of pagan healing lore. A set of 52 playing cards bearing exquisite illustrations of the counties of England and Wales represents a whole project of British identity-making, as monarchs shuffled their territories in a global game. In the era of IKEA, it is hard for us to comprehend that functional objects such as caps, cups and cards might be so urgently culturally, religiously, politically and socially endowed.

Playing with identity - Swamibu @ Flickr

As Antony Sher’s accompanying audioguide puts it, “magical thinking, beyond any specific belief in witchcraft or the occult, was universal in Shakespeare’s world.” We are not talking here about religion or superstition but about a whole way of seeing reality: an incredibly thin membrane between the physical and the imagined, the symbolic and the sensual. And that membrane is the canvas that Shakespeare’s plays slide across, paint on and puncture. Opening ourselves to it is central to understanding the unique pleasure and power of his words.

If there’s one thing we need as winter draws in, as fourteen year old bloggers get shot and disgraced heroes are stripped of their medals and the exhilaration of the summer fades into bruised memory, it’s a reminder that magic can still be found in the world - even if that world is violent, unjust and unstable to its very core. The British Museum is a good place to start.

This article originally appeared in London Calling


James Bond: Trash Or Art?

Indulge me in a little exercise. Open a new tab on your browser, enter and type ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ into the search bar. After multiple DVDs, CDs and audio downloads (but thankfully before the OPI nail varnish, ‘retro maxi poster’, 1:36th scale Aston Martin DBS model and silver framed magnetic notice board) you’ll find Ian Fleming’s paperback. Click on Look Inside! and read the first chapter.

Aren’t you glad you indulged? Whether you’re that rare creature, a Bond virgin, or whether, like me, you simply haven’t revisited the original books for several years, I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised, especially if you’re a woman. Because with all the excitement around this month’s release of Skyfall - the latest, and according to most reviewers, one of the greatest, in the Bond film franchise, which also happens to mark the fiftieth anniversary since Dr. No brought James to our screens in 1962 – it can be easy to underestimate the skill and subtlety of a writer associated with girls dipped in oil and gold like bankers’ crudités.

For me, the most immediate accomplishment of ‘Seascape with Figures’ – a chapter heading more reminiscent of Virginia Woolf than Pussy Galore – lies in the author’s aptitude for detail. Like any good journalist, Fleming names rather than describes what he sees, and his specificity – the plant species, the exact distances and sizes of things, the names of the playground enclosures, the colours and flags on the boats – evokes vividness without sentimentality. This is filmic writing from the off, where minute close-ups alternate with wide-lens sweeps, and contrasting shades and shapes are carefully juxtaposed. My first reaction is not surprise that such successful action movies have been made from such lyrical books, but that the films themselves aren’t more beautiful. Fleming’s writing is more Boudin than bonkbuster, and it throws the action into sharper relief.

The next delight occurs when we plunge from the plages straight into Bond’s head, only to bypass the self-assured sophisticated for a childhood James: grubbing in the sand, dirty, frustrated, vulnerable, chastised. It gives instant depth and humanity to the focused killer, for all that he quickly shakes off the memory with a flick of his cigarette.  And this is swiftly followed by Fleming’s wit, a subtle knife which has none of the glibness of the films and which judges our hero more harshly than we might expect. Bond, caught in a moment of introspective weakness, asserts himself with gruff self-dramatisation as a woman-hunting spy; Bond observes coldly, scientifically, the prominence of French girls’ navels and their relationship to fertility. It’s funny, damning, bizarre. I simultaneously laughed out loud and cringed.

There is darkness in this passage too; genuine darkness, without the camp histrionics of a movie set piece. The “briefly, grittily” writhing lovers on the dusky abandoned beach and the fragility of the white, hunted girl on the bloody sunset-streaked sand is more Don’t Look Now than For Your Eyes Only. And finally, you get the smooth Drambuie savour of his masterfully engineered plot. In the text, the end-of-chapter segue to flashback, which can come across as so clunky on screen, makes you want to punch the air with glee.

Admittedly, I’ve picked a good ‘un. Fleming certainly has his flaws, and reading too many Bonds can leave you with a stale aftertaste akin to a Martini hangover. The writing’s earnestness and endless references to aspirational cars, drinks, clothes and cigars can be wearing. The sexism (which even Fleming’s niece Lucy concedes) is difficult to dismiss as a trait that belongs solely to Bond. And individual novels are of variable quality; Fleming himself tried to block the UK paperback edition of The Spy Who Loved Me after critics and fans alike quite rightly lambasted its slapdash characterisation, sleaze and violence.

The literary establishment has traditionally been rather dismissive about Fleming; the Oxford Companion to English Literature concludes his three-line entry with the sneering aside that “Bond has appeared in many highly popular films which mingle sex and violence with a wit that, for some, renders them intellectually respectable.” The fact that other novelists, such as Sir Kingsley Amis (under the pen name Robert Markham), John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffrey Deaver have been roped in to produce their own Bond novels over the years, has also reinforced an unhelpful belief that while Fleming’s central idea is precious, his prose is not.

However, the importance of that central idea is not to be underestimated. In Christopher Booker’sThe Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Fleming’s plots are hailed as some of the best examples of the ancient ‘Overcoming the Monster’ archetype, their hold over our collective imagination timeless and timelessly satisfying. As for prose, when Faulks was asked to write Devil May Care, a one-off instalment to celebrate the centenary of the author’s birth, he was surprised, on re-reading, “by how well the books stood up. I put this down to three things: the sense of jeopardy Fleming creates about his solitary hero; a certain playfulness in the narrative details; and a crisp, journalistic style that hasn’t dated.”

Indeed, Fleming’s ability to inspire not just filmmakers and merchandisers but other writers is a sign of how potent his mixture of lyricism and action, interiority and object fetishism, really are. In a 2007 BBC Radio 4 programme Amis, Amis and Bond, Martin Amis spoke with equally effusive super-fan Charlie Higson about the deep impact Fleming had on his father. In fact, as a stunt for the premiere of Skyfall, Higson has even been squashing 007 plots into 140-character tweets: Bond as (repetitive) poetry, no less.

So whether you’re inspired by or indifferent to Daniel Craig’s majestic brooding, I’d urge you to give Fleming’s original texts a try. Having raced through three, I’m continuing to uproot my action/thriller aversion and finding other unexpected joys in John Le Carré, A.D. Miller’s recent Booker-shortlisted debut Snowdrops and even that old stalwart Wilbur Smith. Shaken out of my snobbery, stirred by surprise, I’m being reminded that genre prejudice remains the book-lover’s true criminal mastermind.

This article originally appeared in Bookdiva.

Theatreland's Celebrity Ladder

TThe moment Stephen Fry utters his first lugubrious syllable in Tim Carroll’s Twelfth Night at The Globe, a frisson runs through the assembled crowd. By now, surely no nation on earth remains untouched by repeats of QI, and a good number of tourists and Londoners alike will have braved the October weather to see Lord Melchett as Malvolio. Fry repays them amply; this is, after all, a man who trod the boards long before Hollywood called. And while he milks the monologues for maximum wit, Fry is much subtler than Blackadder fans might expect; he is willing to hold back on easy laughs in order to remind us that this betrayed butler is a poor forked creature with hopes and dreams as real as ours. In short, he reminds us that he can actually act. It is a delightful reclamation of a performer who has, on TV and film, become almost a pastiche of himself.

Celebrity is a tricky concept in the theatre world. In ancient Greece, theatre had as central a role in society as government or religion, yet the actors’ masks encouraged personal fame to be subsumed beneath the archetypes they played. In Shakespeare’s time, most actors were hard-living, politically cunning and ruthlessly mercenary, equal parts hero and villain. Nowadays, too much fame, let alone fortune, can brand a stage-grown success a sell out; too little, and they find themselves continually sidelined for the latest overhyped starlet looking to claw back a little credibility under a west end pros arch.

So what are the celebrity strata that determine rank in the theatre world? What does stardom really mean in a distinctly unglamorous industry?

Fry is undeniably an A-list thespian. He also happens to be an A-list movie star. But these two categories of fame are very different, and frequently incompatible. Several box-office darlings with coconut water and method coaches in tow have discovered that film A-list does not only not guarantee status in the west end, it makes it even harder to earn. In theatre, ‘A’ must stand for Authentic, as well as Adored In America; it begins with a youthful period of dues-earning in the fringes or spear-bearing at the RSC and usually ends on its knees in front of the Queen. Bona fide A-listers include Maggie Smith, Ian McKellan, John Hurt, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh and Julie Walters (who recently, brilliantly returned to the stage for the first time in over a decade for The Last Of The Haussmans at the National Theatre to prove she can still act, too): essentially, the cast of Harry Potter.

And unlike film, theatre’s A-list has a shadow cabinet: the S-list. S-listers have all the form and talent of the ‘A’s – often more – but a quirk of career path, age or looks has kept them out of the international screen scene. Mark Rylance, also playing in Twelfth Night with a reprise of his Olivia from ten years ago, is a great example of this. Back then, he was an eccentric industry darling little known outside theatre circles. Thanks to cross-Atlantic accolades and awards for his role in Jerusalem, he’s now selling tickets as effectively as Fry. But the fame is still largely theatre-centric, and casting directors have always found it hard to accommodate his particular brand of genius on the screen. Rylance is too much of an original and a rebel to wholly fit into the ‘A’. He will continue to do some of the best acting ever witnessed, but where he does it best: on the stage.

Other S-listers include Rory Kinnear, Simon Russell Beale, Iain Glen, Helen McCrory and Anne Marie Duff. They give good character on British TV, but to catch their prime you have to leave the house. When asked for recommendations from theatre novices, I’ll try and pick a production with an S-lister at the helm. I know they’ll produce the kind of magic you just can’t get on film, and that the recommendee will come away amazed they’re not international stars. But that’s the thing about S-listers: we want them to stay ‘S’, because they’re our secret.

Which brings us to the I-list. The I-listers are the actors that regular theatre-goers have admired for years, and slightly resent becoming public property – hence ‘I’ for ‘I Knew Him When’. Ah, cry theatre lovers, what is Ben Wishaw’s cute turn as Q compared to his 2004 emaciated Hamlet or his brutal Elliot in Mercury Fur? Benedict Cumberbatch is another classic ‘I’; we knew him as the oddly sexy star of Richard Eyre’s Hedda Gabbler and Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein before Sherlock suddenly catapulted him into a very different league of fame, and we’re slightly discombobulated that our weird crush has become mainstream hot. And anyone who saw Tom Hardy in In Arabia We’d All Be Kings at the Royal Court in 2003 or the National’s The Man of Mode in 2007, will watch him ace the film The Dark Knight Rises with the mournful pride of a mother sending her special soldier off to fresher’s fair.

Behind the ‘I’’s come the 'W's: the ‘Weren’t Theys’ – actors and actresses who, in a reverse journey from screen to stage, have found a niche on TV and now earned the right to their first decent theatre roles. Again, Carroll’s Twelfth Night offers a perfect example in Samuel Barnett’s Sebastian. Barnett recently gained a cult following with a beautifully observed turn as the obnoxious PA Daniel in the BBC’S Twenty Twelve, and his entrance induces a classic W-list audience sequence of frown; squint; recognize; squeal catchphrase for instant nerd points (‘Soya latte? Great choice! Enjoy!’) Spotting W-listers is a rewarding game; there is particular pleasure in seeing a promising young actor start to mingle with the greats.

Finally, we get to the ‘C’s. The ‘C’s have no celebrity at all. The ‘C’s are Canon Fodder: anonymous, fresh faces playing bit-parts in the regions to get their first break. Unrecognised, exhausted, trying to fling out their handful of lines with enough panache to make a casting director bite, they are apparently the backbone of the British theatre tradition, but they don’t feel like backbone, they feel rubbish (I speak from experience). They’d trade their experimental Ibsen for a corpse part on Holby City in a blink. But, because we’re talking about theatre, the ‘C’s have perhaps the greatest status of all. They are what gives the ‘A’s their authenticity. They are what separates a Spacey (fantastic, but hasn’t lain shivering in a B&B awaiting the opening night of a ‘modern take on Electra’ in Barnsley Town Hall) from a Judi. They’re top of the ladder, because they’re holding it from below.

So yes, buy your ticket for Fry. But once in a while, take a chance on the fringiest bit of fringe you can find as well.

This article originally appeared in London Calling

The Tricycle's New Wheels

Becoming the artistic director of any well-known theatre is always a tough gig. With Josie Rourke only one season into her tenure at the Donmar, Vicky Featherstone replacing Dominic Cooke as the first female AD of the Royal Court, and Greg Doran finally shouldering the seriously heavy mantle at the RSC, this autumn will see some keen critical attention focused on the UK’s new generation of theatrical leaders.

Could Indhu Rubasingham have one of the hardest tasks of them all? Because he new AD of Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre isn’t just having to stamp her own mark on a venue dominated by the 28-reign of Nicolas Kent, whose focus on producing political work such as The Colour of Justice, a tribunal play based on the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and The Riots, last year’s verbatim work by Gillian Slovo, has given the Tricycle a reputation out of all proportion to its 240-seat capacity.  She is also having to deal with a £350,000 reduction in funding, a result of simultaneous cuts from the Arts Council, the London councils and Brent council last year that led Kent to resign in protest.

“The reason I’m interested in all of this,” Rubasingham, unfailingly warm and prone to laughter, explains, “is not out of a political agenda or fulfilling an arts council brief. It’s because it comes from my personal experience.” Recently awarded the Arts & Culture Award at the Asian Women of Achievement Awards for astounding achievements in theatre, a common theme in her career so far has been a commitment to increasing diversity. She sees the Tricycle – situated in Brent, London’s most diverse borough – as an ideal nexus for this ambition. “There’s a real need to address these issues which I’ve been doing in my freelance work. It’s not just that I’ve taken this job and been inspired by that position. It’s the reason I went into theatre in the first place.”

Her first season, opening in October, is a bold stake in the ground. Kicking off with the premiere of Red Velvet, a new play by Lolita Chakrabarti featuring TV star Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge, she will then introduce the Tricycle’s first ever family show, The Arabian Nights, “a global adventure sweeping through Persia, Arabia, India and Asia.” 2013 will see One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, Don Evans’ comedy about racial tensions in1970s America, performed by Eclipse Theatre Company, the nation’s only black-led touring company. Finally, March will bring Paper Dolls, a new play with music about Filipino transvestites. Obviously.

“I feel my first season is quite risky”, she laughs. “I’m very proud of it in that I don’t think I’ve compromised my artistic vision for the season, so whether people like what I do or don’t, it won’t because I haven’t followed my own heart.” This is important to Rubasingham. She is experimenting with a number of ways to get the local community involved with shaping the theatre, including raising its social media profile, putting ideas boxes in the foyer and creating an ambassadors group for Arabian Nights. Brent residents get concessionary rates and she is keen above all “to make people feel the theatre is for them.” But she is equally adamant that her work won’t be dictated or diluted by chasing the approval of certain communities. “First and foremost I am an artist, so the work has to be of quality, interesting and engaging. I’m not interested in doing low quality work just because it might bring in an audience.”

Born in Sheffield to Sri Lankan parents and brought up in Macclesfield, Rubasingham was always desperate to move to the capital.  “I think from being a teenager stuck in a small, very culturally undiverse town, I just needed to get out of there as soon as possible. When you grow up in a very white area, particularly a rural area - and also were talking about a good 20 years ago now - if you walk into a pub there's a curiosity or an awareness of being different, while what was lovely about when I first came to London was that there wasn’t that sensibility. Anything goes. It was incredibly refreshing.”

She quickly discovered her vocation in theatre, following a teenage stint of work experience for Nottingham Playhouse with a drama postgrad in London before scooping a bursary from the Arts Council to be assistant director at the Theatre Royal at Stratford East. However, it quickly became clear there was much to do. “I did feel theatre was alien to me,” she admits. “Why wasn’t I seeing stories that reflected people like me?” And so she commenced to carve a frankly magnificent path through Britain’s theatre landscape, holding Associate Director posts at The Gate Theatre, Birmingham Rep, and the Young Vic, directing the Pulitzer Prize winning Ruined at the Almeida Theatre, and promoting new and global work from unheard voices and communities every step of the way.

She does believe that she is part of a wider movement already having success in changing the white, old middle-class theatre hegemony. “I just did a play called Belong at the Royal Court and I think there’s a really interesting audience there. I think the National has changed incredibly, especially with its Travelex season; there is really a different audience. I remember when I was much younger, going to the National and being incredibly intimidated, but you don’t now get that feeling at all. The Theatre Royal at Stratford East is really embedded in its local community. I think there are different models you can look to and aspire to. I try to be a bit of a magpie and get ideas from all of them.”

But what about that great hole in the finances? How is that impacting on her work? “There’s a lot of stuff I’ve got ideas for and people I want to work with. The biggest challenge is going to be fundraising. If people do like what I do, then hopefully they’ll buy into it and help me continue because some of my plans are quite ambitious, especially the international work and collaborations, and the finances needed for that are obviously higher.” But she is honest that she is currently feeling her way. “I want to preface everything I’m saying with a reminder that I’m right at the beginning of this journey. I hope I can remain optimistic and idealistic throughout, as opposed to becoming jaded and beaten down by the obstacles!”

Surely, if there’s anyone capable of give the tricycle a new set of wheels, it is this idealistic, ambitious woman with a personal investment in making London’s theatre better reflect London’s people. If she can find some time to sleep, that is.

This article originally appeared in London Calling

Classical Cool

Who would have thought it? Who would have suspected that, amongst all the industrial hobbits, pogoing punks and (sometimes barely) resuscitated musical icons offered by our beautifully bonkers Olympic ceremonies, The London Symphony Orchestra would turn out to be one of the bona fide stars? From Rowan Atkinson’s unforgettable Chariots of Fire hijack to the inclusion of 80 super-talented young East London musicians from 7 to 17, the LSO suddenly looked like the coolest crew in town.

With the mantra ‘encourage younger audiences’ surely inscribed on the marketing strategy of every orchestra in the world, ensembles big and small must be hoping to capitalize on this surge of visibility and pride. Here are five tactics that London’s orchestras are employing to get open-minded twenty- and thirty-somethings to become a more regular part of their repertoire.

Make it late

With the National Portrait Gallery’s weekly Late Shift, the V&A’s monthly Friday Lates and the bi-monthly Late At Tate Britain, we’re familiar with museums and galleries offering late night treats, but fewer of us realise that orchestras are rocking the after-hours culture-club vibe too.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is an old pro of this approach. Since 2006, its Night Shift has offered “late-night, laid-back and contemporary” sessions designed to pull in a younger post-work crowd, with DJ sets bookending a central hour-long classical concert. Next up? A concert of Haydn’s ‘best bits’ at the Old Queen’s Head pub in Islington on 25th September, which aims to prove that Franz Joseph is as exciting as Franz Ferdinand. In the meantime, check out their podcast.

And this summer the Proms is getting in on the act, offering eleven 10pm performances from a selection of young and global orchestras including the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra.

If you get the late-night culture munchies of a Saturday evening, their ‘Prom Plus Late’ sessions offer “informal post-Prom music and poetry from emerging young talent” followed by a late bar.

Offer more accessible music

The Night Shift isn’t the only trick in OAE’s Gen Y box. Sitting through three hours’ of complex masterwork can be a daunting prospect to an orchestral virgin, so The Works aims to provide an accessible and entertaining way into the greats. In an 80-minute “classical music equivalent of a museum audio-guide”, the audience is taken through a classic work step-by-step, followed by an Q&A and a full performance of the piece. There is music in the bar before and after, and a chance to ‘speed-date the orchestra’ so you can ask the flautists what they really get up to in band camp. Their Flickr sets and Vimeo trailers give a taste of what to expect.

Other ensembles are eschewing the big European stalwarts for quirkier works. On September 19th the City of London Sinfonia is relaunching CloSer, its series of informal 75 minute performances during which musicians and audience ditch the formal concert seating and mingle around the bar. The first event has an American theme, with crowd-pleasers from Stravinsky and Copland mixed with an unusual guitar, bandoneón and strings concerto from Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla. Not bad for £15 (including a drink), and you can preview the concert playlist on Spotify.

Embrace technology

 To cater for digital natives, podcasts, videos and photo sets are becoming ubiquitous. The London Philharmonic Orchestra was the first in the UK to create an iPhone and iPod Touch app, now also available for Android devices, which allows users to download podcasts and videos but also check concert dates, buy tickets and listen to complete movements from the upcoming programme.

Live streaming is also increasingly commonplace. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra hosted the first ever online streaming of live concerts directly from Cadogan Hall, and you can download their current resident series via Cadogan TV at £4-5 a pop. Last December, the North London-based Aurora Orchestra teamed up with DERO live, an orchestral digital streaming project which is part of the Digital R&D Fund for Arts and Culture, to stream a live performance of Mozart's Requiem online and in selected cinemas, garnering almost 15,000 viewers who watched on average 98% of the show. In March they live streamed Nicholas Collon’s Love Song to the City from the Roundhouse, and platform hosts Videojuicer are planning more, so join their mailing list to catch the next event.

But for some truly immersive interactivity, head to Universe of Sound, a collaboration between The Science Museum and the Philharmonia Orchestra. In a free installation at the museum, a virtual Philharmonia performs Holst’s The Planets while visitors use giant visual displays, touch screens, unconventional projecting surfaces, movement-based interaction and planetarium-style projections to take part as musicians, conductors, arrangers and composers. Catch it in situ before the end of August or get a taste online at The Space.

Mash up disciplines

Simply listening to music can be challenging for a multimedia generation, so orchestras are dabbling in artistic crossovers to engage several senses. One example guaranteed to please is BBC Worldwide’s upcoming Planet Earth In Concert at Royal Festival Hall. Showing reworked HD imagery from the groundbreaking Attenborough series, along with a live performance from the Philharmonia of Emmy award-winning British composer George Fenton’s stirring score, Olympic-level tingliness is inevitable.

Founded in 2009 with a specific mission to make orchestral music more accessible to a wider audience, the London Arts Orchestra frequently blurs the boundaries between theatre and music. Their October show called Time for Tales, taking place in London’s trendster heartland at Christ Church Spitalfields,  promises a magical journey through “the music and stories of Sleeping Beauty, West Side Story, and War Horse”. Supported by the National Theatre and multidisciplinary Pimlico group People at Play, it should help shift assumptions of what orchestras do.

Exploit social media

Finally, no new audience strategy would be complete without the T-word.  Orchestral Twitter profiles are rife, and the LSO has a good Twitter list featuring 284 global orchestras. Its own profile is an impressive example with almost 58,000 followers, exclusive freebies and discounts, and a generally switched-on, friendly and responsive feed featuring debates, retweets and hat tips to other top acts. It also promotes their Google Plus Hangouts: discussions with conductors, composers, musicians and writers which the public can watch live on YouTube while asking questions and adding comments.

When it comes to Facebook, the English National Opera page is worth a look. With over 9,000 Likes, it posts news and links to multimedia content, rewards loyal fans with prizes such as posters, announces competitions, conducts polls and gives a peek into the lives and passions of the ENO team.

In fact, orchestras’ social presences are generally of a higher quality than most arts organisations’, reflecting their current priorities. If you want to convince a younger audience to try something new, word of mouth is far more effective than slick marketing campaigns. From all the evidence above, it looks like orchestras could just be on the cusp of a popular groundswell.

This article originally appeared in London Calling

The Hollow Crown @ The BBC

Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more. Only this time bring us proper screen stars. Poirot; The Pope; Loki; that lawyer lass off the telly; that French bird that looks like a ferret. And filmic production values. Gilded tents, monkeys, wibbling lemon posset breats, ye olde stinking pubbes, Hobbiton stone bridges with willows trailing tresses in streams. And beaches. Lots of beaches. We shall Bard them on the beaches. Oh, and Simon Russell Beale in a fat suit, marinating pinkly in his own talent. Boom!

The BBC's Hollow Crown - which I have only just got round to ploughing my way through - was the true Cultural Olympiad of this summer. Sure, it looked great, portraying Britain's brooding, bucolic beauty in an Opening Ceremony sort of way. But it was chiefly a glittering showcase for our young actors, who proved that their thespian muscles are as honed and world-beating as any Ennis washboard.

Hiddleston, Kinnear, Wishaw and Armstrong were the emotional athletes who shone. Oh, the old guard were magnificent, of course. Simon Russell Beale was almost too painful to watch as Falstaff, evoking a world of fathomless, sodden, self-hating hunger in one piggy glitter of his eyes. David Suchet played the Duke of York so utterly like a real normal honest-to-God human being that anyone acting beside him started to look like, well, an actor. The women didn't really get a look in, but then these are histories after all. No, this show belonged to the boys, and they did us proud.

Hiddleston was a delicious sprite of a prince and a delicately ambiguous king. But it was Ben Whishaw's MJ-via-Gadaffi-via-Jesus Richard II, particularly when delivering the Act V Scene V prison soliloquy, who was the real gold medallist for me. Why is he not more famous than Olivier? He's better, goddammit, and it's not just 'style.'

Shakespeare acts like carbon dating for British culture. Productions of his plays unfailingly hold a mirror up to the decades in which they are created, and none more so than Henry V. If the Hollow Crown speaks of our collective vision of humanity, heroism and horror in summer 2012, we're not doing badly.

We're not doing badly at all.

Britain's Forgotten Horsewoman

This summer, the British Museum offers us the opportunity to get up close and personal with one of the bravest, boldest and most important horsewomen that England has ever produced. It’s not the queen.  It’s not Mary King, Zara Phillips or one of the nine other ladies on Team GB’s 2012 Equestrian team. And no, it’s definitely not Katie Price. Because the most inspiring figure in the museum’s impressive newly exhibition ‘The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot’ is one hundred and seventy five years old and you’ve probably never heard of her.

It would be easy to miss Anne Isabella Noel Blunt, 15th Baroness Wentworth. Sandwiched between a wall-sized interactive touch-screen showing panoramic shots of ancient Saudi Arabian equine rock art on one side, and Ahmed Moustafa’s purposely commissioned painting ‘Horse and Horseman’, a kaleidoscopic depiction of a mount and rider entirely made up of Islamic calligraphy, on the other, the display of faded journal pages and grainy photographs looks deceptively unexciting, But the story of Anne Blunt is as thrilling and romantic as any film.

So much so, in fact, that Saudi resident Rebecca Savard, alongside Emmy award-winning producer Kieran Baker, and historian and scriptwriter Cynthia Cuthwright, is making one. “I am simply inspired by her courage and passion,” Savard explains when asked what captured her imagination about Blunt. “I believe Lady Anne serves as a terrific role model for young women everywhere.  In a time when the world seems to be becoming a smaller place, understanding of different people and cultures is critical, and what is portrayed in the media is not always accurate.  This is a time of great change in the Arab region, and there are many women who are succeeding in areas that are shaping their worlds.”

Blunt was born in 1837 to William King, 1st Earl of Lovelace, and Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, herself a pretty impressive woman: daughter of the poet Byron, she is widely credited as being the world’s first computer programmer and was recently made namesake of an annual day devoted to celebrating the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. Her daughter was a chip off the old block; fluent in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Arabic, a skilled violinist and a gifted artist who studied drawing with John Ruskin, young Anne displayed all the accomplishments of the English noblewoman. But her real passion was for horses, in particular the exotic, elegant Arabian breed, which still inspires devotion from artists, writers and pony-mad teenagers worldwide.

Anne married the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt in 1869, and Wilfred’s common love for equestrianism, along with his interest in Middle Eastern politics, led the couple to co-found the Crabbet Arabian Stud in Sussex and to travel the world procuring and breeding the best Arabians in order to preserve the purity of the line. As Blunt adventured through Arabia and the Middle East, she kept meticulous journals of her experiences – mid-desert bivouacs in Bedouin tents, visits to recover stallions from unscrupulous Egyptian dealers - complete with delicate, evocative sketches.

Throughout history, horses have more often been an instrument for destruction and colonization than a tool for cultural empathy, but Blunt’s journals display a curiosity and open-mindedness unusual for her time and class. “Mostly, I admire Lady Anne for how she acted as an ambassador for the Arab people”, Savard explains. “Through her writing, art, and work with Arabian horses, she provided a glimpse into a world that little was known about in her time.”

Others obviously agree; Savard’s film is backed by HH Prince Faisal bin Abdullah Al Saud (Chairman of the Saudi Equestrian Board of Trustees), HRH Prince Mohammad bin Nawaf Al Saud (Saudi Ambassador in the UK) and the Layan Cultural Foundation, and her team hope to finish it in time to hit the festival circuit in 2013. However, in the innovative spirit of Anne, the documentary will be no sentimental romance.  “It will be a modern-day recreation of Lady Anne’s journey”, says Savard. “Her diaries document the compass points of her adventure, and we will follow this route on horseback, with all modern technology such as GPS and satnav. Viewers will be able to see the difficulties encountered in crossing the desert in modern times, which will reflect in the overwhelming efforts it took for the Blunts to make the same journey in the 1800s.”

Blunt’s ending was not a particularly happy one; her husband had several mistresses, often simultaneously, leading her to push for a divorce in 1906. In 1915 she permanently decamped to Sheykh Obeyd, their 32 acre estate and breeding farm near Cairo, but continued to be pestered by Wilfred for money and became estranged from her daughter Judith. However, her legacy still resonates through the equestrian world today, as the vast majority of purebred Arabian horses can still trace their lineage to at least one Crabbet ancestor.

When asked to name a modern horsewoman who channels Anne’s spirit, Savard doesn’t hesitate. “The name that immediately springs to mind is Dalma Rushdi Malhas, a young woman who was on-track to be one of the first females to participate under the Saudi flag at the 2012 Olympics.  Unfortunately, her horse fell ill, and she was unable to attend.”

And so, while she will enjoy watching the other competitors – many of whose mounts may have traces of Crabbet blood – Savard still remains most influenced by that accomplished Victorian girl who loved horses more than anything else. “I moved to Saudi Arabia 8 years ago without knowing much about the people and their culture, other than what I saw on the news.  Lady Anne’s determination to travel through the desert and experience a different culture is something I keep in my mind every day, and serves as an inspiration for me to learn as much as I can about a way of life so different from my own.”

The British Museum’s exhibition provides exactly that - a way into other worlds through the history of our relationship with this iconic, extraordinary animal. It’s well worth a lingering visit, not least because it’s free. Just don’t forget to visit that modest little cabinet of old papers and photographs.

This feature originally appeared in London Calling

Video Design Grows Up

London’s new smash musical Singin’ In The Rain has more than its fair share of memorable moments. And although the scene where Don Lockwood (Adam Cooper) joyfully splashes his way across the waterlogged stage wins out on feelgood factor, the funniest is the screening of Lockwood and his co-star Lina Lamont (Katherine Kingsley)’s disastrous first attempt to make a talkie. As their film unravels, complete with missed cues, dodgy sound and terrible diction, so do the audience; it’s a comedy set-piece only matched when ingénue Kathy Seldon (Scarlett Strallen) dubs the rushes later in the show.

It seems only fitting that, in a play about movies, a piece of film has a starring role. But while many of the audience may wonder who created the impressive lighting, set or sound, few will question who was behind the projection.

“We get mentioned a lot more now”, grins Ian William Galloway, the beguiling green-eyed 30-year-old from east London whose video design for the show has garnered glowing reviews from the Guardian, Telegraph and Evening Standard. “Generally the rule in lighting and sound and set is that if you don't get mentioned that's fine - it’s only if you get mentioned badly that it’s an issue! It's perhaps been a case of reviewers not quite being sure who did what. But that's solving itself as the naming becomes more consistent. Video designer or projection designer. They know what that means.”

The rest of us may have a little catching up to do. As a recent piece in the Guardian on projected theatre sets suggested, there is still an innate antagonism between theatre and video. Declaring that “using video technology for settings is nothing but the 21st-century equivalent of the painted backdrop” and that it “[goes] against the very essence of theatre: imagination”, the article prompted a storm of comments. But as Galloway points out, this represents only one application of video design in a fast innovating industry.

“All the technology, such as projection mapping, has been around for the past ten years. Because it was expensive people initially wanted to wow audiences by creating big spangly 3D projected sets. But now you can buy a projector from PC World for £300 that is as bright as what we were using forHis Dark Materials. This means people aren't pre-deciding that they have to use it in a certain high-profile way, which means the design gets better. You can walk in and ask: what do you think it needs? What do we want to we say with the video? It could be subtle, it could only appear once. It's like sound: how many effects you have has no relation on how good or bad the final product is.”


Jazz, Meet Word

If you asked any London culture vulture to identify the hottest trends in the capital this spring, jazz and spoken word are both likely to figure on their list.

From the buzz around Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Great Gatsby adaptation to the flapper frocks that colonised last month’s Fashion Week, jazz has burst out of its earnest middle-aged-esoterica box and into the youthful mainstream. Last October’s London Jazz Festival - which has grown from humble origins to become the capital’s largest ten-day city-wide music festival - was notable for the volume of excellent home grown talent on display, such as Mobo-winning quartet Empirical and virtuoso saxophone and jazz duo McCormack and Yarde.

In parallel, the renaissance in spoken word events around the capital, which have been deservedly hyped over the past couple of years, show no sign of abating. Book Slam, “London’s first and best literary nightclub” is packed every month and even offers merchandise from a cloth-bound hardback annual to tote bags and T-shirts. Literary Death Match, the raucous American competitive-reading smackdown, has chapters in 36 cities across the world, and London’s is as vibrant as any. And last month, Shoreditch House’s Literary Salon featured Alexandra Shulman reading alongside Chris Cleave, Colm Tóibín and Richard Holloway. If this is a trend, it’s not only rather old, it’s one that has serious legs.

So could the hottest place to be seen in April be Phraseology, a new Tuesday night event held at Shoreditch’s Bar Music Hall? The brainchild of saxophonist Dee Byrne and author Elanor Dymott, Phraseology combines exciting new jazz acts with literary readings and short films in what Byrne calls an “attentive and supportive” atmosphere. “Jazz is composition in real time through improvisation,” Byrne explains. “Poetry or novels take much longer to complete but are essentially an improvisation with words that took months or years to complete. Spoken word is probably the closest to an improvising jazz musician, where the artist is putting phrases together in the moment. The idea was to create a cross media audience.”

Of course, the combination of jazz and poetry is not a new idea.


Silk And The City

It’s whispering down the catwalk at Somerset House for London Fashion Week. It’s caressed by every tourist nipping into Liberty’s for an iconic paisley scarf.  And it’s the star of the current exhibition at the V&A, in the form of a shimmering golden cape that took 1.2 million Madagascan spiders, eight years and a team of expert handloom weavers to create.

Silk is undeniably associated with elitism, elegance and expense. But according to biological engineer Fiorenzo Omenetto, it is in fact “the ancient material of the future”. In his brilliant TED Talk, Omenetto demonstrates how this “sustainable natural Kevlar” can be used to create holograms, optical fibres, dissolvable body implants, microneedles and LED tattoos. Far from being a heritage fabric, he believes that this “new old material could profoundly impact high technology, material science, medicine and global health.”

Silk’s ability to weave together the past and the future is beautifully evident at the Golden Spider Silk exhibition, which exemplifies the coming together of traditional extraction and weaving techniques with the bold vision of British textile artist Simon Peers and US designer entrepreneur Nicholas Godley. The cape itself could equally be a Madagascan antique or the latest piece of McQueen couture.

Indeed, the ancient silk industry has helped to shape modern London. But the history of silk and the city is one of violence, folly and persecution that belies the fabric’s refined image.

Silkworms, silk goods and the skills of sericulture first came to Europe thanks to a series of brutal conquests of Asia and Persia, from sixth century Romans, seventh century Arabs and medieval Crusaders in turn. France and Italy quickly developed strong silk industries, but our island lagged behind. And so in 1609 the aesthete king, James I, attempted to develop a native sericulture in England, by purchasing and planting 100,000 mulberry trees, partly on a plot beside his own Hampton Court. Unfortunately, James had ordered the black variety. Silk worms feed off white mulberry leaves. The experiment failed.

It wasn’t until 1681, when Charles II offered sanctuary to the Huguenots being oppressed by the Catholic Louis IX, that London really embraced silk. The trickle of French refugees became a river when, in 1685 Louis XIV, revoked the Edict of Nantes, forcing all remaining Huguenots to convert to Catholicism or face persecution.  From 1670 to 1710, 40-50,000 Huguenots, many of them wealthy and highly skilled weavers, sought refuge across the channel.

Most of them headed to Spitalfields, which became the centre of London’s silk trade, otherwise known as ‘weaver’s town’. East London was an ideal destination for the new arrivals, as food and accommodation was cheap, and the area was relatively free from the strict economic control wielded elsewhere by the guilds. By 1700 there were nine Huguenot churches in Spitalfields alone.

Once you know what to look for, it is hard to wander around modern Spitalfields without seeing the shadow of those French silkmen everywhere.


Naturally 7 @ Barbican Centre

Surprisingly, my husband manages to fit in a job other than me. He works for AEG, proud owner of the O2 and other impressively echoey sports and music venues around the world. Pre-husbandisation, he invited his lovely colleague in Berlin, Markus, to attend our wedding with his equally lovely wife and son Alexa and Timon. Bear with me. I'll get to the ridiculously talented accapella guys in a minute.

Alexa and Timon couldn't make it, so instead they sent a best-wishes video from Berlin for us to watch on the day, featuring a whole host of AEG colleagues too. None of them could pronounce our name. It was very moving. The room got a bit dusty. And then, because they were playing the O2 World Berlin and Markus had collared them in the lift, seven super-energetic black dudes in co-ordinated bad-boy outfits popped up to say congratulations.

They were Naturally 7. It took me a while to realise, jumping and squealing like a girl who just happened to find some old Facebook shares in her handbag at their show at the Barbican last night, that they were them. I was too busy having fun watching them coax a Barbican audience  - majority middle class, middle aged and fed up from wandering for hours trying to find the bloody place - to full ovating, yelling, booty-busting splendour in a blistering old-school feel-good feast of a gig.

Naturally 7 produce their own R&B songs, as well as covers by everyone from Phil Collins to DMX to Simon & Garfunkel, using nothing but their voices. Every instrument, DJ effect and sample loop is created vocally. Sure, it's a stunt, but when its executed this well it never gets dull. You can keep your retro 50s barbershop boys and soulful 60s acousticians. These guys have classic technique and musicality galore but they also have a bouncy, heartfelt playfulness and enthusiasm that has nothing to do with being cool and everything to do with giving your audience a damn good time.

So a belated thanks, boys, for the marital blessing - I had no idea you were this awesome. Everyone else, catch them when you can. Wear something that soaks up sweat and a big stupid 2012-style grin.

'Appy Birfday, Mister Dikkins!

What to write? He said it all, literally. As we celebrate Dickens's 200th birthday, this is definitely the year to go back and remember why Charles really does deserve his hype.

Sure, watch the adaptations, but be selective. Lean is mandatory. Andrew Davies' exemplary 2005 Bleak House for the BBC beautifully balances the epic and the intimate, the poignant and the rambunctious. But Sarah Phelps' humourless Great Expectations screened this Christmas was an emo Burberry ad of a flop. Good thing Mike Newell's 2012 film would appear very difficult to fuck up, despite his controversial ending-change - with Helena Bonham Carter as Havisham , Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch and Robbie Coltrane as Jaggers, you'd have to do some pretty bad directing not to enter 'instant classic' territory.

Absolutely, dip into one of the biographies: Claire Tomalin and Simon Callow are deservedly hot right now, but Peter Ackyroyd's 1990 tome is still a classic.

And if you get a chance to watch Callow do him, go.

But above all, read the damn books. When dug out from under the layers of expectation and assumption, which begins with the curse of the curriculum; continues through ubiquitous and vague application of 'Dickensian' to anything fat, cockney and frock-coated; and peaks with Gillian Anderson going full retard, it is always surprising how funny, sophisticated and ambiguous they truly are.

Go on then: which one's your favourite and why?

In Residence | Beowulf

This season, the British Library is all about the manuscripts. The gorgeous artworks in ‘Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination’ – its big winter exhibition charting 800 years’ worth of illuminated medieval and Renaissance manuscripts collected by English kings and queens –bring a feast of glimmering gilt, holy lapis lazuli and rich royal crimson into a grey January.

From Winchester’s New Minster charter, which dates back to 966 and shows King Edgar worshipped alongside Christ by adoring angels, to Henry VIII’s personal psalter, complete with illustrations of the hirsute king posing as David, these manuscripts admirably achieve their aim – which is to dazzle us with the magnificence of the monarchy whilst furthering its religious, political and social ends. The exhibition is the result of three years’ research undertaken by the Library in collaboration with the Courtauld Institute of Art on 2,000 ancient handwritten books, which give deep insight into the motivations, aspirations and imaginations of our ancestors. Its stated aim is to “to make them as well known as landmark medieval buildings linked to the monarchy, such as the Tower of LondonWestminster Abbey and Windsor Castle”.

Seriously stirring stuff.

But when you’ve finished marveling at these parchment peacocks, don’t hit the Euston Road straight away. Our In Residence series is all about uncovering some of the best artistic gems nestling in the permanent collections of London’s museums and galleries – gems that are totally free to visit and prone to be overlooked in the age of the expensive blockbuster show.

So before you head back out into the rain, take a detour to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery on the Library’s upper ground floor and seek out an altogether less flashy manuscript. This book more closely resembles something you might have made for a school project: pages stained with tea, edges crisped on the hob, ye olde calligraphy carefully pressed on in sepia Letraset. But to me it is more moving and magnificent than the finest bestiary.


Future Folk

It was an unlikely pairing. You wouldn’t expect the sort of edgy, urban international hipsters that attend SXSW – the music, film, and technology festival and all-round trend-spotting mecca that sprouts from the desert of Austin, Texas each year – would have much interest in a bunch of bobbing blokes from a small Oxfordshire village with bells on their legs and hankies in their hands.

But when Tim Plester premiered Way of the Morris, his documentary about “the origins and impulses behind Morris dancing and its place within enchanted England’s ongoing story”, alongside the Jake Gyllenhaal thriller Source Code and Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, their reaction suggested quite otherwise.

“We certainly didn’t come close to breaking any box-office records,” Plester laughs, “but we did succeed in attracting several small but perfectly formed audiences who, I hope, left the screenings with their notions of Old Weird Albion sufficiently shaken and stirred.” The film want on to scoop awards for ‘Best Independent Documentary Feature’ and ‘Best Documentary Film’ at the 2011 Southern Appalachian International Film Festival, was selected by the UK Film Focus as one of their ‘Breakthrough’ British films of the year, and both the British Library and The British Film Institute requested copies of the film for their archives.

Plester’s success is not as surprising as you might think, and not just because nostalgia for the bucolic good life is a timeless cultural trope. A new strain of gritty, unsentimental and forward-looking rusticity has been bubbling away over the past five years or so. And to its disciples – in music, fashion and technology, as well as film – native traditions are a way into the future, not a relic from the past.


Scary Christmas Shows

It was the blow job joke that did it.

Admittedly, the RSC's new winter show, The Heart of Robin Hood, had signalled from the start that we weren't in for wholesome derring-do amid dappled sunshine. Within the first few minutes our ungallant hero had shot dead a monk with an arrow through the eye. Shortly after, soldiers threatened two blubbing children under the revolving toes of their hanged father. A realistic decapitation drew a few gasps but was swiftly topped by a brutal de-tonguing, in which the ravaged appendage was gaily waved about as the victim's mouth frothed with blood. But it was when King John started to make bobbing hand gestures, pantomiming his lascivious nature, that I saw several adults around me pursing their lips.

The kids, of course, were oblivious – and ecstatic. And so they should have been. Gísli Örn Garðarsson's deliciously visceral production rips through the cliches of our over-worn national tale to touch its anarchic, acrobatic and deeply moving heart. It feels far more authentic than the versions of FlynnCostner and co, and full of the morbid weirdness that characterises old British myths.

But some grumblings surfaced among the parents as we filed out into the night. Wasn't it, well, a bit much? There is a "suitable for age seven +" disclaimer on the RSC website, but this is being touted as a family show and there were many under-sevens in the audience. "It was the same with Toy Story 3," said one mother. "That bit in the oven. It was far too scary for me, let alone her."

This response amazes me. Don't grownups remember what it's like to be a child? The success of the Horrible Histories franchise reminds us that kids love bloody, messy nastiness, but the Histories are pure Blyton compared with the best of children's literature. From the moment we're introduced to the kinky cruelties of the Brothers Grimm, things get dark. Then come Lewis CarrollRoald Dahl, Alan Garner … these are the twisted keepers of our childhood imaginings. Even JK Rowling's Death Eaters tap into the tradition.



In Residence | Madonna Del Prato

Perhaps the recession makes us eager to feel we’re getting more for our money. Perhaps James Cameron, Peter Jackson and the other masters of the CGI epic have led us to expect nothing less. Or perhaps the arts marketing industry has simply got really good at fuelling the hype machine. Whatever the reason, we are most definitely in the era of the arts blockbuster, where every new exhibition has to come packaged as this year’s ‘major event.’

Back in May, the Guardian’s Stephen Moss asked ‘Is the blockbuster exhibition dead?’, citing the Tate’s recent Gaugin exhibition – which took record sales but suffered brutal overcrowding – and the National Gallery’s current star show Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, for which the number of admissions has been reduced from 230 per half-hour slot to 180. He was responding to comments by Colin Tweedy, the chief executive of the Prince of Wales's charity Arts & Business, who in March called on gallery bosses to innovate new, less troublesome models for showcasing great artists.

It seems that nobody was listening. Right now we have, to name but a few, John Martin: Apocalypse for Tate Britain and Gerhard Richter’s Panorama for Tate Modern, both pulling in breathless critical acclaim as well as ticket sales; Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement at the Royal Academy of Arts trying to reinstate the painter as a revolutionary rather than a sentimental obsessed with little girls; and Grayson Perry’s joyful, subversive and sprawling The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a curation of objects for the British Museum. And in the run up to the Olympics we are being promised a slew of blockbusters that will demonstrate London’s cultural greatness – even though all they may end up demonstrating is our lack of decent crowd control.

But there is a solution to Tweedy’s problem sitting right before our eyes; a free and fulfilling antidote to the constant round of must-see top-fives. It is called the permanent collection, and London is rich in impressive and eclectic examples. If you never saw another exhibition again, you could fill your days a hundred times over with some of the most beautiful art ever produced – in spacious, uncluttered spaces, without a time limit, and very often for free.

So this is the first in London Calling’s ‘in residence’ series of features, in which we will aim to shine a spotlight on some of the permanent artistic gems nestling in our capital’s galleries and museums. Some of them will have changed the world; some of them may have interesting histories or geneses; some of them might be highly relevant to our times; and some of them might just be personal favourites which we hope will resonate. The joy of these pieces is that they can be visited and revisited at your leisure, free from a specific exhibition gloss or narrative. They might become objects that change and grow with you, evolving as part of your life, as they have mine.

Let’s start with the Madonna del Prato, or Madonna of the Meadow, by Giovanni Bellini, tucked away in Room 1 on the ground floor of the National Gallery. For me, this simple religious scene is the most beautiful example of a culturally laden genre that dominated centuries of European art.


Hamlet @ Young Vic


Ian Rickson's new Hamlet at the Young Vic contained a lot of firsts for me. It was the first time I've been scared in the ghost scene. Thefirst time I've felt genuine danger in the Players' mouse-trap play. The first time I've believed that Hamlet was a neuron-flick from suicide, not just once but several times. The first time I've given a shit about Ophelia.

It made me realise how much I put up with in other Hamlets. And this has been a glorious decade for the Dane; Simon Russell Beale, Sam West and Rory Kinnear are just three who have hit my solar plexus hard. But I have always assumed that even a fantastic Hamlet necessarily contains moments of slackness and snooze. Who can make every one of those lines matter in such a dense play? Don't we all know that the Ophelia madness stuff is just a bit, well, embarrassing? Isn't Horatio basically a prop? And doesn't all that introspection, now and then, even with the best actors, tip into over-familiar emo whining?

So it's a very rare Hamlet that makes you resent the interval.

Rickson sets his production inside a secure mental institution; a bleak 1970s hellhole complete with stained carpet tiles, guttering strip lights and clanking metal security doors. Burly guards in velcro shoes strip-search newcomers. The court converse on a circle of wipe-clean chairs like a therapy group. Bodies are discreetly slipped into a sandy pit beneath the floor. James Clyde's Kilroy-Silk Claudius, a menacingly smooth supervisor and jailor in his blue three-piece and bouffant hair, smiling slips pills into palms.

But is Claudius really in control? Are the others really the victims? Rickson's conception has divided the press, with many critics finding it gimmicky or reductive. I feared, before I saw it, that I would share their view. In fact, I think they're mad.

Yes, Rickson takes a stance. And boy, does that stance illuminate the play with new urgency. Every mention of madness (and you realise how many there are) shines anew. The sense of human instability, threat and vulnerability animates every moment with an almost unbearable tension and poignancy. The stakes are heaven-high.

But the ambiguity remains. It is uncertain whether Michael Gould's nervy Polonius, armed with a dictaphone yet apt to moments of paralysing confusion, is Claudius's crony or captive. When Hamlet himself transforms into his father's brutal, enraged ghost with the help of a coat, a knife and some seriously good acting, we are unsure whether this is a collective hallucination, a bout of schizophrenia or a piece of genuine demonic possession. We are still not entirely sure whether all of them or none of them or some of them are mad. The context makes us question their insanity as much as accept it, and highlights how ordinary emotion makes nutjobs of us all. This could be a dream; a suggestion; a reality. Whatever it is, it works.

Taking one stance does not destroy the others inherent in the play.  All the other possible interpretations of Hamlet are layered behind this production like shadows, as they always are. But what this thoroughly conceived vision does for sure is make every image and every word dagger-sharp and new. It made me realise how bored I am of the humble, white-space, the-verse-makes-the-imagery productions I thought I loved.

Fuck it. Let's be bold.

And Sheen carries it all with heartfelt originality, scrubbing at his corkscrew curls as if he can draw his thoughts to the surface for examination. Manic, he is a brilliantly funny, physically explosive Rik Mayall. Depressive, he is a coiled snake, flicking his tongue to taste the bitterness of the world and staring out from the prison of his consciousness with over-bright, yearning eyes.

This show deserves queues round the block akin to Rickson's other big theatrical statement currently playing in London, Jerusalem. Get in line.


There is a fantastic episode of Radio 4's Great Lives in which Sheen describes the influence of Philip K. Dick on his performance. Well worth a listen. Thanks to the lovely Toby Field, the producer, for pointing me to it.